Cynically playing the ‘1979 card’ in Bahrain

Bahraini royals and the US are wrong to depict the uprising as a harbinger of Iran-style extremism.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

The ‘day of rage’. That is what the youthful Bahraini organisers had called their protest on 14 February. For the 500,000 or so citizens of this island kingdom, this was no arbitrary date. Rather it marked the tenth anniversary of Bahrain’s National Action Charter, a programme of reform launched by the nation’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. And 10 years on, Bahrain, a nation ruled over by the Al Khalifa family, both on the throne and in the parliament, is still no closer to the constitutional monarchy Sheikh Hamad pledged it would become.

On Monday last week, with thousands gathered on the Pearl roundabout in the capital city Manama demanding the democratic reform the king had promised, the Bahraini police force moved in and opened fire, killing one protester. Since then, with the day of rage extending into a second week, between a further four and six protesters have been shot dead by police and hundreds more have been injured. Despite this, however, the tens of thousands of protesters have remained resolute in their demands.

The source of their animosity is the 200-year-old autocratic rule of the Al Khalifa family. Yes, there is a parliament and there are elections, which is no doubt why ex-Conservative minister David Mellor recently called Bahrain a ‘quasi-democracy’. In reality, ‘pseudo’ would be a more appropriate qualifier. The prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa is the king’s uncle and half the cabinet are related to the Al Khalifa family. Furthermore, through the manipulation of constituency boundaries and the careful granting of citizenship rights to Sunni Arab foreigners, the kingdom’s Shia majority – around 70 per cent of the population – are rendered a minority in Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated parliament.

But this is not an ethnic dispute between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The protesters’ demands are, above all, recognisably democratic, ranging from calls for an English-style constitutional monarchy to an unadulterated republic. ‘We are all Bahraini’, said 19-year-old Mohammed Jaffa last week: ‘They tried to make this about Sunni against Shia but it is about basic rights. That is all we are asking for.’ His was not an isolated refrain. At one of the largest public rallies the Middle East’s smallest state has ever seen, around 25,000 Bahrainis marched to a graveyard to bury one of the police’s victims, shouting ‘No to Sunni; no to Shia – we are all Bahraini’. At the heart of their demands lies a yearning for greater freedom, something captured in slogans such as ‘the king and his cronies don’t speak for us’.

Yet in the ever-watchful eyes of the US government, this popular challenge against an autocratic regime is seen as something problematic. Like the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings before it, the sight of thousands of Arabs struggling to overthrow an oppressive regime appears threatening. The results seem just too unpredictable, the actors a little too irrational. So while both US president Barack Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton eventually condemned the Bahraini state’s violent attempt to suppress the protests, they also talked about the need to ‘maintain stability’. The protesters were to be indulged by the Al Khalifa dynasty, their demands acknowledged – all in the interests not of democracy or freedom, but of stability.

The reasons for the US administration’s anxiety are clear. Bahrain, home to 3,000 US military personnel overseeing 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors, is clearly crucial to Washington’s strategic interests. Like its supporter Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has long been deemed a key partner by the US in its efforts to exert an influence in the Persian Gulf. And that is part of the problem. America’s influence in the region, long dwindling after the war in Iraq, and now quickly unravelling after the uprisings in US-friendly states like Egypt and Tunisia, has turned the tiny island of Bahrain into an international battleground. If Washington is to be believed, then the opposing armies aren’t the pro-democracy protesters versus the Al Khalifi state. Rather, we are told that this is a battle between America’s allies and the spectre of Iran-backed Islamism.

This is why the Shia-Sunni division, despite the protesters’ claims that it is not the issue, appears so important to the US as it attempts to wield influence in Bahrain. To see the Shi’ite majority gain a say in the government of Bahrain would be to drive it towards Shi’ite Iran.

This, at least, is the fear. But here the US is actually doing little more than repeating the line long peddled by the Bahraini crown. As one American professor of history has pointed out: ‘The Al Khalifa dynasty has portrayed Shia as potential Iranian catspaws and pointed to Iraq as an example of the negative consequences of Shia democratic empowerment.’ Indeed last week, in one of Manama’s grand mosques, amid a welter of pro-monarchy speeches, Adnan al-Qattan, the cleric leading prayers, alluded to the Iranian threat when denouncing protesters’ attempts to ‘open the doors to evil and foreign influences’. A US official echoed such fears: ‘Someone will step in to exploit this situation, and Iran is already moving to do that.’

No doubt Iran is manoeuvring in the region due, in large part, to its strength as a dominant power post-Iraq. But this is not some sinister extremist, pro-Islam, Shia-favouring plan unfolding. Rather it is that the unravelling of American influence has merely allowed Iran to fill an ever-expanding power vacuum. Iran is reacting, not scheming.

Yet such is America’s increasing sense of powerlessness that the fear of what will happen in the Middle East has outstripped any reality. In a desperate attempt to cling to its small ally of Bahrain, marooned in the Persian Gulf, America’s decision tacitly to back the Al Khalifa dynasty threatens to rein in the Bahraini people’s surge for democracy.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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